Gail Zappa and the University of Kentucky Chamber Winds
7:30 p.m. March 14 at the UK Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Free.
A funny thing happens when a performance or musical event comes to town that centers on an artist whose work you grew up with.
Sure, you assemble the story first, excited by the prospect of discussing the music of a personal inspiration. But in doing so, you shove away the personal baggage you unavoidably bring with you.
Next you research the dickens out of what you're writing about. You pore over recordings and other musical data by the artist. That can be endlessly fascinating, or it can make the prospect of a root canal seem fetching.
The music of Frank Zappa has been a personal favorite ever since a junior high teacher gave me a demerit for reciting the lyrics to I'm the Slime during class.
Over the years, the appeal of Zappa's music only grew. His rock-oriented works hit me first. The orchestral music, initially, I just didn't understand. I don't know if I do today. But they do seem as intriguing today as the records saturated in guitar instrumentals, progressive jazz and social commentary. And if you managed to hit upon elements that touched on all three, as in Zappa's landmark 1969 album Uncle Meat, you felt like you had struck gold.
Tonight's discussion by Gail Zappa, the composer's widow and head of the Zappa Family Trust (a talk curiously titled ”Some Musicians Don't Enjoy Water Sports“) and a performance of Zappa compositions (along with works by Varèse and Stravinsky that inspired Zappa) by the University of Kentucky Chamber Winds, gave me an excuse to dig out about 60 Zappa albums.
Last Saturday's snowstorm afforded me the time to become reacquainted with the great Zappa. Here are some observations gathered from an afternoon spent with a steady supply of hot tea and a crate full of Zappa albums:
The orchestral arrangement of G-Spot Tornado on the The Yellow Shark is a thing of tense, tight wonder that blows by with gale-force briskness. But the original version from 1986's Jazz From Hell, recorded on the now-extinct digital synthesizer known as the synclavier, is even stormier.
Zappa manages to cut through the psychedelic pap of the late '60s on Oh No before launching into the warm and, dare we say, wholesome melodic stride of The Orange County Lumber Truck on 1970's Weasels Ripped My Flesh. The tunes are reinterpreted on 1974's Roxy & Elsewhere, which places Zappa's sublime guitar work front and center, and again with even greater tenacity on 1991's Make a Jazz Noise Here.
Speaking of guitar work, there are several recordings devoted exclusively to Zappa's extraordinary instrumental prowess. Among them: 1981's Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, 1988's Guitar and the posthumous 2006 collection Trance-Fusion. But for pure compositional thrills, nothing beats what Zappa summarizes in a mere 10 minutes on the 1979 guitar instrumental Watermelon in Easter Hay.
The opening Sinfonia section of Stravinsky's Octet (to be part of Friday's performance at Singletary) bears a wind-savvy animation that is generously reflected in many of Zappa's pop works, such as Uncle Meat's The Dog Breath Variations (also on Friday's program).
Among the many topics that seemed to really frost Zappa's pumpkin was organized religion. He prefaces a version of Stinkfoot on Make a Jazz Noise Here by discussing TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggert's then-recent confession of doing ”something pornographic.“ But 1981's Dumb All Over cuts deeper to suggest that the only thing more insipid than corporate righteousness is a following that buys into it.
Finally, Zappa was one of contemporary music's most underappreciated champions of free speech. In 1985, he testified before the U.S. Senate when the Parents Music Resource Center began promoting a rating and labeling system for the lyrical content of records. The testimony was sampled for a 12-minute synclavier montage called Porn Wars on 1985's Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention. Also included is a snippet of dialogue between Tipper Gore and Zappa.
Gore: I'd be interested to see what toys your kids ever had.
Zappa: Why would you be interested?
Gore: Just as a point of interest.
Zappa: Well, come on over to the house. I'll show them to you.
St. Patrick's Day is Monday. That means regional clubs, pubs and concert halls are likely to have the green flowing this weekend as well.
The long-running Pale, Stout & Amber — also known as local folk and Celtic music specialists Robert Tincher and Art Mize — has two area shows of jigs, reels and more on tap.
The duo performs Sunday at the Richmond Area Arts Council Performance Hall at Lancaster Avenue and Water Street, as part of Richmond's afternoon-long Celtic Celebration (3 p.m.; $12, free for ages 12 and younger). Call (859) 624-4242. www.artsinrichmond.org.
Next up is a St. Patrick's evening at Natasha's Bistro, 112 Esplanade (8 p.m., $10). Call (859) 259-2754. Irish step dancer Abby Cook will accompany Pale, Stout & Amber at both performances. Fellow dancer Kristy Tucker joins the troupe for the Nastasha's show. www.beetnik.com.
The Singletary Center for the Arts has multiple St. Paddy sounds of its own to show off. Saturday brings the more regional talents of the Kentucky McTeggart Irish Dancers, London-born flutist John Skelton and Lexington's own multi-instrumental duo Daniel and Amy Carwile.
The roots of the McTeggart School of Irish Dance go back nearly 70 years, to when it was founded in Cork, Ireland. A McTeggart school was established in Winchester in 1994, and it moved to Lexington three years later. It continues to emphasize studies in traditional Irish dance and culture. Skelton, who set up home base in Central Kentucky some time ago, travels extensively as a performer and teacher. An acclaimed flutist, he is an expert in the music of Ireland and Brittany. He also has co-led, with Ged Foley, The House Band, one of the finer folk ensembles to emerge out of the United Kingdom during the past 25 years. The Carwiles are multi-instrumentalists who teach and perform on fiddle, mandolin, guitar and more. They have toured or recorded with Alison Krauss, Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, Tim O'Brien and Scotland's Battlefield Band (7:30 p.m., $15).
Then, on St. Patrick's Day itself, a progressive Irish-American ensemble out of eastern Washington state called An Dóchas, along with the Haran Irish Dancers, plays at Singletary. In Sunday's Arts & Life, we talk to An Dóchas guitarist-vocalist Mellad Abeid about Irish tradition in the American Northwest (7:30 p.m; $18-$24).
For both performances, call Singletary at (859) 257-4929 or go to www.singletarytickets.com.